Degree Granting Department
Sara Munson Deats, Ph.D.
Nicole Guenther Discenza, Ph.D.
Julian Yates, Ph.D.
Marty Gould, Ph.D.
Dream of the Rood, object-oriented ontology, Philip Pullman, thing, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare
This dissertation follows a collection of agentive objects around and through the networks of humans and nonhumans in four disparate works of English literature: the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, William Shakespeare's narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, Thomas Hardy's novel The Woodlanders, and Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials. Applying the emergent discourses of object-oriented analyses, I posit the need for a critique that considers literary objects not as textual versions of real-world objects but as constructs of human imagination. What happens when we treat nonhuman or inanimate objects in literature as full characters in their own right? What work do nonhumans do to generate the story and the characters? How does our understanding of the human characters depend on the nonhuman ones? Most importantly, what motivates the agency of the fictive nonhuman? I argue that in this particular collection of texts, nonhuman agency stems from authorial nostalgia for the Garden of Eden: a time long past in which humans, nonhumans, and God existed in perfect harmony. Each text preserves this collective memory in a unique way, processing the myth as the author's cultural moment allows.
The Dream of the Rood chapter uncovers the complex network of mirrors between the poet, the fictive Dreamer, the True Cross who speaks to the Dreamer, and the reader(s) of the poem. I use Jacques Lacan's stages of psychosexual development to trace the contours of this network, and I demonstrate how the poet's Edenic vision takes the form of an early medieval feast hall in heaven in which God presides over a banquet table like Hrothgar over Heorot. The Rape of Lucrece chapter posits that a series of domestic actors (weasels, wind, door locks) join with various "pricks" in the poem in an attempt to protect Lucrece from her rapist, Tarquin. Through these objects, I investigate the limits of women's speech and its efficacy before concluding with a consideration of the poem's Edenic vision, a Humanist paradise-on-earth, in the guise of the Roman Republic. The next chapter follows a shorn section of hair through The Woodlanders as it performs various functions and is assigned responsibility and power by several different human characters in the novel. The hair acts within a network of "man-traps" that illustrate the dangers of human artifice in an industrial era, and it reveals to readers Hardy's certainty that we will never reclaim Eden in our postlapsarian world. Finally, I navigate the fantastic worlds of His Dark Materials with the aid of three powerfully agentive objects: a golden compass, a subtle knife, and an amber spyglass. The first and second, I insist, resist not only their user's intentions but also their author's, because they are imbued with so much life and power that the narrative cannot contain them. The spyglass, by contrast, performs exactly as it was designed to do, and reveals the secret of the perfectly symbiotic world of the creatures called mulefa, who model for us a very contemporary new Eden that is populated by hybrids, sustained by materialism and sensuality, and presided over by earthly individuals rather than an omniscient Creator. Pullman's trilogy brings us back to the Garden but insists that our fallen state is our triumph rather than our tragedy.
Scholar Commons Citation
Angello, Elizabeth Stuart, "Paradise Always Already Lost: Myth, Memory, and Matter in English Literature" (2014). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.